How to fight the US bank surveillance campaign
A bank’s surveillance capabilities have been extended to the home.
This month, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to prohibit the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from requiring a bank to monitor the online banking activity of its customers.
It was a key legislative achievement, but it will need to be ratified by the Senate before it can take effect.
Since it passed the House, the bill has been blocked by Senate Republicans, who say it is unconstitutional.
But the bank surveillance legislation, the Bank Secrecy Act, is being pushed by a coalition of consumer groups and privacy organisations.
It seeks to ensure that customers are not monitored without their permission.
“The bank’s data is a huge target for surveillance,” says Nick Housman, the executive director of Privacy International.
“It’s not just for a security purpose, it’s for economic exploitation and financial abuse.”
The bank surveillance bill would prohibit the FDIC from requiring banks to keep a list of customers, or to allow it to share this information with law enforcement agencies.
It would also require banks to use “reasonable, articulable suspicion” to check on customers’ online activity.
“This bill is aimed at preventing the government from targeting American citizens online and that’s an important goal, but we have to remember that it’s not the whole story,” says Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
“There’s also an important legal requirement that the bank must get consent from customers before it shares their information.
That’s a bit of a slippery slope.”
A bank that cannot protect privacy rights of its own customers could also face lawsuits, says Lynch.
The FDIC says it is already sharing information about customer accounts with law-enforcement agencies, and it would continue to do so under the bill.
The bank secrecy bill would also allow banks to “reclassify” customers into a category that is exempt from bank surveillance, meaning that the information would not be shared with law enforcers.
But critics say it would be a backdoor for the NSA to track American citizens’ online activities.
The bill is supported by the banking industry, which says it will save billions of dollars and improve customer service.
Banks are already required to disclose customer data to law enforcement, but privacy advocates argue that is too broad and that banks are already doing this.
“You’re not going to stop the NSA from using data about bank accounts if you have to create a class of people who are deemed to be too risky for banks to hold,” says Michael Vara, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
“You need to have reasonable suspicion that the person in question is engaged in criminal activity or terrorism activity before you would be comfortable sharing that data with a law enforcement agency.”
The bill would create a new agency, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), to oversee compliance with bank secrecy laws.
This agency would not need to obtain the consent of the bank, but would instead be overseen by a federal judge, who would have the authority to block a bank from sharing customer data.
FinCEN would also have a limited authority to enforce bank secrecy legislation in the US, which would limit the agency’s ability to use information from bank customers to investigate and prosecute financial crimes.
It is currently only able to prosecute crimes committed by the banks themselves.
“I can’t think of a situation where there’s any legitimate reason for a bank not to share information with FinCen,” says Housmann.
“We should not be sharing data on people without their consent, especially when there are so many legitimate privacy and security reasons for not doing so.”
But FinCECen’s powers are limited, and its work has been criticised by privacy experts and consumer groups.
The FinCEP’s draft proposal is based on the recommendations of a bipartisan group of lawmakers and civil liberties organisations, which said in a statement that FinCENT is “too broad to apply in a meaningful way” and that it “could easily lead to unnecessary restrictions and abuses of the financial services industry’s consumer protections”.
EFF has called on Congress to block the bill from becoming law.
The bills’ supporters include the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association, and the American Association of Insurance Commissioners (AACA).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also released a statement supporting the bank secrecy bills.
“If Congress wants to protect consumers and financial institutions from the abusive surveillance of American citizens, it needs to put forward a legislative framework that safeguards their privacy rights, protects their civil liberties, and protects the economic wellbeing of American consumers,” said Nicoletta Guglielmi, the ACLU’s director of communications and communications campaigns.
“As we saw in the Edward Snowden revelations, the government is spying on us, and that should not end until Congress takes action to stop it.”
The EFF is also supporting the bill, which it says “will ensure that Americans are not forced to share their